This is a fascinating story. It’s also very strange and filled with ambiguities. It’s really just plain weird. I love it.
(1Sa 28:1-25 ESV) In those days the Philistines gathered their forces for war, to fight against Israel. And Achish said to David, “Understand that you and your men are to go out with me in the army.” 2 David said to Achish, “Very well, you shall know what your servant can do.” And Achish said to David, “Very well, I will make you my bodyguard for life.”
This passage sets up the story in the next chapter. Achish put David in a difficult position, making him and his men the palace guard and asking them to go with him to battle against Israel.
Remember, this is the same David who felt guilt over cutting the hem of Saul’s robe! The rest of the chapter deals with Saul and the necromancer (KJV: “witch”).
3 Now Samuel had died, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in Ramah, his own city. And Saul had put the mediums and the necromancers out of the land.
The Law of Moses required that mediums be killed —
(Exo 22:18 ESV) 18 “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.
(Deu 18:10-14 ESV) 10 There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you. 13 You shall be blameless before the LORD your God, 14 for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the LORD your God has not allowed you to do this.
And yet Saul was not a man of principle —
4 The Philistines assembled and came and encamped at Shunem. And Saul gathered all Israel, and they encamped at Gilboa. 5 When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. 6 And when Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets.
Recall that David constantly goes to God for guidance and receives it — without fail. But God refuses to respond to Saul’s requests.
Evidently, at this time the Philistines were a superior military force when they were united, and so Saul was afraid.
He is, of course, just like us. He relies on himself when things are going well, but when times get tough, he turned to God. But God wasn’t there for him. In victory, Saul had ignored the will of God, and so when he is in desperate straits, God turns his back on him.
There’s a lesson there.
7 Then Saul said to his servants, “Seek out for me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her.” And his servants said to him, “Behold, there is a medium at En-dor.” 8 So Saul disguised himself and put on other garments and went, he and two men with him. And they came to the woman by night. And he said, “Divine for me by a spirit and bring up for me whomever I shall name to you.” 9 The woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the necromancers from the land. Why then are you laying a trap for my life to bring about my death?” 10 But Saul swore to her by the LORD, “As the LORD lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.”
In a perfect irony, rather than repenting and returning to God, Saul tries to — once again — handle things his own way, seeking to force God’s help by disobeying God.
Saul is one stubborn, arrogant guy — and again, he’s just like us. When we don’t like God’s answers, we don’t submit and we don’t repent. We try to force God to obey our will. We bargain with God. We get angry and threaten to leave him. We do whatever human thing we can imagine to impose our will on God.
Saul could have repented, confessed sin, and softened his heart, agreeing to yield to God’s wisdom. That would have been no guarantee that God would change his mind, but it would have certainly had a better chance than disobedience to God’s law. (When David was told of his punishments for his sin with Bathsheba, he replied, “I have sinned against the Lord.”)
11 Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up Samuel for me.” 12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.”
Now, among the many mysteries of this chapter is how she suddenly came to realize that he was Saul. And does her scream indicate surprise?
Did she expect to raise Samuel? Or did God allow her to actually do her first successful seance to make a point to Saul?
13 The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.”
“A god” is elohim in the Hebrew. Some translations say “divine being” (NAS) or “spirit” (NIV) but elohim would properly refer to gods or a god, and many translations say “gods” as elohim is plural in form, although sometimes used with a singular meaning.
Now, she meant to summon Samuel and she did. Why would she imagine she’d summoned a god (or gods)? What was it about Samuel’s appearance that gave her this impression?
14 He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage.
Why couldn’t Saul see Samuel? Why did he have to ask what he looked like? Was this a vision personal to the necromancer? Or was she the only one able to discern his appearance? Was she in a different room? Very strange …
But we should not too quickly dismiss this as the product of a primitive imagination. The same questions would have been evident to the original audience for this chapter.
I have no answers, but I think the author may have intended to leave this encounter mysterious for his own reasons.
15 Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul answered, “I am in great distress, for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams. Therefore I have summoned you to tell me what I shall do.” 16 And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the LORD has turned from you and become your enemy? 17 The LORD has done to you as he spoke by me, for the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. 18 Because you did not obey the voice of the LORD and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the LORD has done this thing to you this day. 19 Moreover, the LORD will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me. The LORD will give the army of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines.”
Break the Law, violate your own commands, turn your back on God — and bad things happen.
Why does Samuel speak of “bringing me up”? Surely the idea is that he was raised from Sheol — the place of the dead. Not hell but the grave — the grave as metaphor for the afterlife.
Thus, “tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me” doesn’t mean “in heaven” but “among the dead.” In Jewish thought, the resurrection comes at the end of time.
20 Then Saul fell at once full length on the ground, filled with fear because of the words of Samuel. And there was no strength in him, for he had eaten nothing all day and all night. 21 And the woman came to Saul, and when she saw that he was terrified, she said to him, “Behold, your servant has obeyed you. I have taken my life in my hand and have listened to what you have said to me. 22 Now therefore, you also obey your servant. Let me set a morsel of bread before you; and eat, that you may have strength when you go on your way.” 23 He refused and said, “I will not eat.” But his servants, together with the woman, urged him, and he listened to their words. So he arose from the earth and sat on the bed. 24 Now the woman had a fattened calf in the house, and she quickly killed it, and she took flour and kneaded it and baked unleavened bread of it, 25 and she put it before Saul and his servants, and they ate. Then they rose and went away that night.
The necromancer was no fool. Saul was not one to be forgiving of someone bringing him bad news! She was surely at risk for her life, both as a necromancer and for bringing Saul such horrible news. And so she prepared a feast for him.
But how long would it take to prepare this meal? Killing a calf, cleaning it, butchering meat, cooking it — along with bread — surely took many hours. Saul sat there for the better part of the day, waiting on this woman to cook a truly scratch meal — while he should have been preparing his troops! The man was too busy feeling sorry for himself to perform his kingly duties.